Twenty-seven days before Christmas he shuffled in his chair in the front row of the press conference awkwardly.
“I think it’s one of the best signings the club has ever made,” he would later say but deep down he knew it couldn’t have been good for him.
Forty days later Paul Mariner was out of a job and Toronto FC, by announcing Ryan Nelsen as the team’s new Head Coach, appointed their eighth boss heading into their seventh season.
The writing on the wall for Mariner was there that day on November 28th when President and General Manager Kevin Payne arrived from DC.
With Mariner sitting in that front row watching, Payne delivered a strong and ambitious statement to Toronto FC fans and it was clear then that the coach at the time was not the one he felt would be able to do this.
Payne said: “The opportunity to turn things around on the field and repay the fans for their unbelievable amount of commitment and passion is one of the most exciting challenges I can imagine and I see no reason why we can’t be successful in doing that and make this a team that is the standard of MLS.”
It was a message from a man who was thinking clearly past this current year and didn’t want to work with a coach who represented what had happened in the past. It took Payne less than six weeks to find a new man yet his man of choice seems likely to not be ready to start the 2013 campaign with Toronto, instead assistant Fran O’Leary takes charge while Nelsen does what he can to keep QPR in the Premier League.
“I have some obligations with QPR,” said Nelsen to a quiet press room who all suddenly thought the same thing as it became clear the 35-year-old had not kicked his last ball in anger.
Nelsen appears to be a man of great integrity, a man wherever he has played who has made a lot of friends in the game and left a great impact on people.
QPR manager Harry Redknapp called him ‘one of the best professionals I’ve ever met in my life’ while Payne said Tuesday at the press conference that Nelsen has ‘better leadership qualities than any athlete I’ve ever been around’.
Those compliments come to a man who is simply not leaving a football club in their most precarious hour of need. Nelsen has started 17 of 21 Premier League games this season, 1613 of a possible 1890 minutes (85%), which is more than any player at Loftus Road. He is clearly not the player he was and has played too many minutes this season for a club wanting to survive in the league but his presence as a player is clearly still needed in London.
If Nelsen wanted to come to Toronto now it appears that they would be able to get the deal done but Payne summed it up perfectly in the scrum part of the media session, once the press conference was over: “If he just walked away from QPR, I would be shocked. That is not Ryan Nelsen,” he said.
Nelsen earlier had suggested that if his team won five in a row then maybe he could just shake their hands and leave but there seems no doubt that Redknapp’s squad are in a relegation fight that will likely last until the team’s final match at Liverpool on May 19th.
That leaves the reigns of the club in the hands of O’Leary and also sends another direct message that short term should not impact the long term direction of the club.
Smart men who run football clubs must know when they cannot worry about fan backlash. On the outside this looks bad. The football club is coming off its worst season in history (winning just five of 34 games last season) and are now starting a new race with the co-driver taking control of the wheel. However, is it really worse than the alternative?
Mariner was never going to be Payne’s man and giving him the keys for a year would suggest a further backward step than waiting until late May for a man he believes will guide the club for the next five years.
Those caught up in Nelsen’s absence from the team until May would be best served to think that the club hired O’Leary to be the head coach and Nelsen to be his assistant. For now.
O’Leary’s hire is an understated one due to the nature of Nelsen’s fame but should not go unnoticed, particularly because it was announced he will oversee scouting and recruitment for the club.
“Fran and Ryan share a great trust and a common sense of the game,” said Payne.
And in there lies the message. Too often, in their first six seasons, Toronto FC have not had people from the top believing the same as those delivering the message to the players. Whether it is O’Leary or Nelsen, what is essential is the football philosophy in which these men, and Payne, believe in and the need for them all to sing from the same hymn sheet.
As the trio walked away from BMO Field after Tuesday’s press conference they got into Payne’s Audi car and headed back to the city.
Nelsen, perhaps, incorrectly for now, sat in the front while O’Leary sat in the back but at least they all got in the same car.